Taking part in the Kings Cross Story Palace project was a no brainer for me. I’ve always been mad for history and, having been involved in collecting people’s memories of my local park, I was keen to take part in an oral history project as a contributor rather than a curator. The fact that it was asking for memories of The Bell pub in Kings Cross made it all the more irresistible.
The Bell was a pub/club for lesbians and gay men on Pentonville Road – attracting punks, Goths, skins, rockabillies and every other queer misfit with a creative streak and a political edge who didn’t quite feel comfortable in the commercial scene. I went there for the first time in December 1984 – and was there umpteen times a week from then on, both as a customer and, for several years, one of the door staff.
I met many interesting and inspiring people there, not least the man who became my best friend, Nigel Rees. We were inseparable so it’s small wonder that he is woven so deeply into my memories of The Bell and Kings Cross. We were foils to one another. He was confident, gregarious, glad to be in the spotlight. I was quiet, self-conscious, keen not to draw attention to myself. His light gave me room to flower without facing the full glare of the sun. I was his anchor and sounding board, steady, unflashy. There. Together we just worked.
Everything was fun. Even just getting to The Bell became a laugh. We used the Midland City Line tunnel from Kings Cross tube station to get to the pub. During the rush hour the tunnel was busy with commuters but at night it was deserted. The walls were painted yellow, the floor had a yellow, creamy tinge. It was our Yellow Brick Road and The Bell was Emerald City, only brick and red flock wallpaper instead of green and crystalline. Perhaps inevitably, we did the skip dance from The Wizard of Oz, arms linked, along the length of the tunnel.
It wasn’t all rosy though. One February night in 1987, on the way to Traffic, another gay bar on York Way, we were attacked by three men. Neither of us were seriously hurt – just badly shaken. We ran into Traffic and got drunk, dreading the walk back down York Way to get home, a journey we made eventually by darting in and out of doorways, one in front of the other, covering one another’s backs, like our heroes Cagney & Lacey, our fingers pointing like revolvers.
Later that year Nigel moved to Rotterdam to be with his life partner, Jacques. We spoke to one another several times a week, visited as often as we could and went on holiday together. But, slowly, we drifted apart. There was no row or ill feeling. Just life taking us in different directions. But I always expected us to meet again one day and knew that everything would be as it was.
I was wrong.
Nigel died from cancer in May this year. The news ripped me apart and sent me looking for people who’d known him too, not least people from The Bell. I found them through a Facebook group, I Remember The Bell Kings X. Even though I’d had no contact with most of them for 27 years, it was like coming home. Just like The Bell had been all those years before.
It was from the Facebook group that I first heard about the Kings Cross Story Palace. After putting my hand up to contribute to it, I was asked to help coordinate an event where former Bell customers and staff could share their memories together. It’s like being back on the door at The Bell all over again.
The event’s taking place on York Way, scene of mine and Nigel’s queer bashing. He won’t be there this time of course. There’ll be no Cagney & Lacey rerun. Unlike TV shows, history doesn’t repeat itself exactly. How I wish it did.
Rob Pateman, Author has been our guest blogger, thank you Rob.